I have always watched lots of westerns. In almost every western I watched, there was a common scene. See if you can remember seeing this in a movie:
The bad guy grabs the good guy’s lady as he backs into a corner. The good guy, gun drawn, calmly says to the bad guy, “Let her go, Slim. This is between you and me. The lady has nothing to do with it.” Sound familiar? As a matter of a fact, I have seen that exact scene in a number of movie genres.
It is that same sentiment we should use when we go through divorce, “Let them go. This is between you and me. The children have nothing to do with it.”
Unfortunately, the exact opposite happens. We get divorced. We are angry. We are hurt. We are confused. We are penitent. We then use our children to exact revenge or hurt the other person. At moments like that, we should think about those sappy westerns or silly action movies and “Let the children go.”
How Divorce Makes Some of Us Weaponize Our Children
Too often we weaponize our children during and after a divorce. We use our children to try to inflict pain on the other person. I have seen it done by women and I have seen it done by men. From my experience, and I can only speak those things I have seen, it is far more common for women to do it.
In my new book, The Love of a Father: Faith Principles of the Power of a Father’s Love (Palmetto Publishing, 2020), there is a section where fathers respond to a series of questions about their relationship with their children. In a number of cases, men responded that they love their children but have not seen them in years. Years.
I followed up with the obvious question: why? In most cases, it was because the children’s mother was angry, deemed things the father was doing not to be enough to merit him seeing his children, or to punish him for his past actions. So, in other words, the mother was using the children to punish the man for what he had, or had not, done. This is called weaponization of children and it ought not to be.
For all those selfish, insecure, vindictive people who believe it is okay to weaponize our children and withhold another’s children from him, because you do not condone his behavior, because you cannot trust him around your children, or because he is a bad dad, I say to you, you should never, ever weaponize your children.
Let me be clear. If a father molested or abused the children, then you have a right to ensure your children are safe from that despicable behavior. However, no parent has the right to withhold the other parent from seeing their children because the other parent will not do what you say, when you say, how you say.
Withholding Your Child From a Parent Causes More Harm Than Good
Perhaps the other parent has an issue with substance abuse, and you do not want to expose your children to that environment. I get it. Perhaps the other parent has done some heinous things and you feel the need to protect and shield the children. I get it. However, if it is because they have not paid child support, have not paid alimony, or do not give enough money to you to help out, I would encourage you to seek other means of addressing that issue.
Withholding your children from their father (or mother) ultimately hurts in ways you obviously cannot fathom. Withholding children from their father (or mother) deprives that children of a necessary building block to their own identity. To be so selfish and self-absorbed that you withhold children because you are hurting, because you are angry or to force certain behavior, is plain wrong and it hurts two of the three entities, deeply.
No father (or mother) is perfect. All of us mess up and sometimes repeatedly. For many of us, the only thing we have in this world that makes us want to live and do better is our children. The last thing we need is to have them turned on us or weaponized against us.
Perhaps you allow them to see the other parent, but only after you have filled them with poison about the other parent. You tell them adult things about adult relationships that children do not need to hear and cannot appropriately process. Let the grown-up conversations remain among the grown-ups. Stop filling your children with poison against their own parent.
Remember Your Child Has Two Parents
Remember that 50% of the child is made up of you and 50% of the child is made up of the other parent. Stop making your children hate half of themselves!
Again, I get it if that parent genuinely presents the potential for danger to the well-being of your children. But not the made-up kind that you have in your mind, but real, actual, potentially long-term harmful danger. Not ‘your dad is a womanizer so there is no telling how many women will come and go while you are there.’ Not ‘your dad has not paid enough money to help me support you, so he cannot see you.’ Not ‘you treated me bad, so I will not let you see your children. ‘
When I say danger, I am referring to someone who has molested, or physically, verbally, or emotionally abused their own child. If this is occurring the other parent needs to get help, then let your children’s clinical professional help determine if, when, and how to reopen that door.
Short of that, I would tell you that too many people are using their children to strike back at the person who hurt them. Stop it. Children are too important to our future and too important to our present for us to use them as pawns in our games of revenge. Stop it.
Adults must act like adults. Adults must always keep the well-being of their children at the center of their thoughts and actions. Our children need us to act like adults and do the right thing. If you were able to make those children 100% by yourself, then fine, do not share them. But if you required help, then stop using them as weapons. Stop basing access to them on a graded checklist.
No one should have to ask to see their own children. I do not care if they are not acting the way you think they should. No one should go years without seeing their children if they want their children in their lives. No one deserves to have their children withheld from them. That is cruel and heartless.
I encourage parents to put aside their emotions and work through their differences for the sake of the children. You do not have to “be together” to get it together! What is best for the kids? If you think it is best for them not to see the other person because the other person is not a good person, who are you to make that judgment? At some point your children will have to grapple with the 50% of that “not good person” and there is nothing you can do to prevent that. So stop trying to punish your children’s other parent and think of the damage you are doing to that child, who will one day, despite your best efforts, want answers directly from that other parent or a relationship with them.
As you hurt, do not use your children as salve. Do not weaponize your children against 50% of themselves. Stop it. Despite what you may think of the other person, think of your children more. They deserve, nay, they need, a relationship with both parents in order to feel complete. This is true no matter how bad you think the other person is.
Children should have the benefit of being loved by both parents. Yes, both parents, from time to time, are going to disappoint the children and there is nothing either of you can do to prevent that from happening. You cannot shield your children from themselves. Rather than shielding them, help them embrace the totality of who they are, then provide guardrails and guidance to ensure they make the right choices about who they want to become.
But whatever you do, stop weaponizing your children against someone that is just as much their parent as you are!
Dr. Ken Gordon is the author of Divorced But Still Dad: Faith Principles of Fatherhood for Divorced Men (Covenant Books, 2017) and The Love of a Father: Faith Principles of the Power of a Father’s Love (Palmetto Publishing, 2020). In his books, he speaks to fathers – sharing his spiritual journey and why being a dad is so important.